Two years… 24 months… 730 days, whichever way you want to count, a second “anniversary” has passed since Hurricane Katrina forever changed the lives of New Orleans’ 400,000 residents. There has not been one week that has gone by without someone asking me how my family back in New Orleans is doing or how the city itself looks. The more times I was asked, the more I wondered how I can truthfully and accurately respond to such a question. And, the more I began to ponder, what is progress?
If you ask New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, progress in this recovery is about “how many people are back or will be back.” So, one would think the city is doing pretty well with its mayor boasting of nearly 300,000 people having returned already and almost 7,000 coming back each month. But just take a ride through the subdivisions in Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East or the neighborhoods of the 7th Ward and 9th Wards, and you can’t help but question, where are all of those people?
House after house, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood has been left abandoned, with no signs of return. Windows broken, gutters rusted, doors boarded up, porches overgrown with weeds. Local businesses and corner stores bulldozed to the ground, and hangout spots left in ruins. It looks like a war zone, as anyone who has seen the constant coverage of the Iraq war can imagine except the scene is right here in our own country. But what’s even more devastating than seeing these physical structures in ruins is hearing the broken lives of those who call New Orleans home.
The city’s stifling summer heat cannot compare to the hell Thea Perrin has been through over the past two years. She remembers the exact date—December 7, 2005—when she moved into her approximate 200 square foot FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer, the place where she is currently living. It sits on the lot next to the place she calls home, a three-bedroom house in the 7th Ward where she lived for 41 years with her mother and sister. A place they filled with lasting memories, and a place she filled with 150 pairs of shoes and 75 purses, all washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
In the beginning I never really complained much,” recalled 42-year-old Perrin, “but after a while things started getting to me.” She looked around at the cave-like, cramped space that she shares with her 82-year-old mother and said, “There’s no place to move and there’s no storage. …It’s a living hell, it really is. And, that’s putting it in a nice way.”
For nearly two years, Perrin has been confined to the tiny space where everywhere your eyes rest not one surface is unoccupied—a group of suitcases, a pile of clothes, a stack of papers, a bunch of groceries—while her house, completely gutted, is just steps away awaiting for the arrival of Road Home money, which claims to be the largest single housing recovery program in U.S. history helping Louisiana residents get back into a home or apartment as “quickly and fairly as possible.”
She does not use the stove in the trailer because it runs on propane, which she says is expensive, nor does she use the microwave that didn’t work for a year, rather she uses a single burner. Nor does she use the hot water heater, because it too is expensive. The compact refrigerator door has fallen off at least once and the freezer handle broke. The toilet does not completely flush. And there are rats and mice that sometimes roam the floors. The beaming sun is so unbearable that all of the trailer’s small windows are taped, which gives it an even dingier atmosphere.
“I hate this trailer,” Perrin exclaimed. “I hate, hate, hate this trailer.”
Yet she cannot bring herself to leave the space, except for work and necessary outings like grocery shopping.
“You would think that all you’d want to do is do anything you can to get out of the trailer but it’s just the opposite,” she said. “I just don’t want to go anywhere. It’s just so depressing. … It’s horrible, absolutely horrible.”
Perrin, who works at Tulane University’s School of Public Health, said that if it were financially possible she would not have come back and stayed. But, she also had to consider her elderly mother, who receives $500 a month in Social Security, and her disabled sister. Also, with the little money they received from homeowner’s insurance, and no money to collect from flood insurance, she felt she had no other choice but to come back and live in a trailer.
Two years later, she faces the direction of her house and cries, “In the deepest of my heart, I just don’t want to spend another Christmas here. I don’t want to spend my third Christmas in this trailer.”
Perrin continued to tear up as she recalled her family’s first Christmas in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when it took her sister 10 hours to cook dinner on the burner one dish at a time—roast, red beans and rice.
When asked if she is bitter or whom she blames for her current situation, she lists the Corps of Engineers, Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and President George W. Bush. If any one of them was in front of her and she had the opportunity to express how she feels, Perrin said, “I don’t think I’d actually be able to put it into words. I would be so consumed with bitterness, because I am, and anger.”
When I asked that same question to 71-year-old Gertrude Leblanc, a Lower 9th Ward resident who returned five months ago, she quickly cut me off and snapped, “Don’t talk about Bush. That’s a dirty word.” She too is upset over the slow recovery and, more so, the way the people of her area have been treated. “It’s like they don’t want you to come back.”
Leblanc feels that people outside of New Orleans aren’t getting the full picture. “The news media are telling people everything is fine in New Orleans,” she said. “Come in the Lower 9th Ward and you’ll see how fine it is. They don’t tell them about this. Many people don’t know about it, that these people are still suffering back here and [the media] are saying everything is fine.
“Come in the Lower 9th Ward and see people want to rebuild but the Road Home is not giving them that money. They’re holding it back. Plenty people want to come here and rebuild their home.
“They tell people we’re doing fine,” she continued. “No, they may be doing fine in the French Quarter but come a little further down and look and see where it looks like a bomb dropped.”
Still two years later, the Lower 9th Ward remains in shambles—pieces of homes scattered, mounds rubble piled high, fields of overgrown grass cover land once fully inhabited.
When Leblanc, along with her daughter and granddaughter, returned to her neighborhood of 45 years, all that remained after Hurricane Katrina were the red brick steps to her front porch. A small rose garden now lines those steps that lead to the dream of rebuilding her house, but for now she calls the trailer that sits on her empty lot “home.”
“This is my land here,” she said while resting on the ramp that leads her front door. “I wanted to come back because I feel like I have a connection here to come back and rebuild me a home.”
But like Perrin, Leblanc has seen little money from insurance or Road Home. What she is relying on is the good will of people. “Like I say, you have faith, you have hope and [you have] the people all over the country.
“Do you know this is the first time, when I came back here, that I ever heard a person say ‘what can I do for you?’ The church people from all over the country and the college students, they come here and ask ‘what can I do for you?’ Before, I never knew what that was. The people have been good. The city of New Orleans ain’t done nothing. The people doing something here, they are doing it on their own.”
People like Alfred Johnson, who I met last year outside his trailer in the Lower 9th Ward. He has since moved into his home where he, his brother, an uncle and a friend have done the rebuilding themselves, without waiting for the change of Road Home money to clink in their pockets.
“It’s slow but it’s coming together,” said Johnson, who shed much weight since I last saw him. “You just take it a step at a time.”
Johnson said he has received very little financial help from outside sources—namely the government—and is just out there hustling, trying to keep money in his pockets. He helps keep up a couple of his neighbors’ yards and also assists in their rebuilding.
“Everybody gotta make a home for themselves someway, somewhere,” said Johnson. “I’m here until I can do better for myself. If I can help somebody get his together, well that’s what I’ll do until I can get myself positioned right.”
There is another sector of New Orleanians whose voices are seldom heard, yet are undoubtedly suffering—the children. Like adults, the children who lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and are now displaced from the only place they knew as home are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder as well as anxiety and panic. One reason why their voices may go unheard is because often times children don’t know how to put into words what they are experiencing, rather they express themselves through their behavior.
Olayeela Daste is a counselor and coordinator for Agenda for Children, an organization that ensures the basic needs of children and families are met in Louisiana. She says since the day after the storm, the sate-wide child advocacy agency has been working to rebuild childcare.
As a parent counselor, Daste hears daily reports of children reacting to the trauma they’ve experienced over the past two years. She receives calls of children crying when it rains and children just being out of sorts. Even her own nephew displayed symptoms of trauma when he began constantly fighting in his new school in Washington D.C., where he had to live for nine months after the hurricane.
“Even though children cannot verbalize their reactions to trauma, it’ll come out in their behavior,” said Daste. “The children, too, have had a very hard time.”
A major key in soothing children is creating a sense of normalcy, which is why Daste brought her five nieces and nephews along with her to the Children’s Village of Healing. For the second year, New Orleans City Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell organized the day-long event where children were given the opportunity to simply act like children. The Heritage Park site provided wide-open green space for children to run around playing Frisbee or jump from booth to booth making bubbles or arts and craft. There was even a table set up where they could dress and admire themselves in traditional African garb.
Pediatrician, Dr. Corey Hebert who specializes in adolescent medicine, says it’s this type of normalcy, along with routine, that is crucial in helping children heal. It is also just as important for them to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment plan, which is why he has created the Katrina Kids Health Initiative.
With a loss of 80 percent of the city’s psychiatrists after the hurricane, and very few returning, Dr. Hebert says there is absolutely not enough help. So he has created the initiative as a way of raising funds to “make sure that each cohort of children that are identified as post traumatic stress, panic or depression has at their disposal a proper diagnosis as well as a treatment plan.” Dr. Hebert can be contacted at email@example.com or 504-373-6149.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin gives his assessment of the past two years as having put the city “in a position of full recovery.” He labels his city as “the land of opportunity” for at least the next seven to ten years where “if you’re a skilled person of any trade or profession, there’s lots of jobs.”
New Orleans City Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell tells of an energy and excitement, brought in the city by the younger generations and entrepreneurs, that “wasn’t here for a long time.”
And Colonel Jeff Bedey, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Office, assures that the levee system is safe, where walls that were damaged and/or failed have been repaired and replaced, and it’s even better than pre-Katrina as continuous improvements to the 100-year level of protection plan are being made.
But, they will also admit that the city still needs help. Stories such as Thea Perrin, Gertrude Leblanc and Alfred Johnson are undeniable proof that the people still need help. Although they are only three voices that may not represent all the residents of greater New Orleans, they are three strong voices that speak to the struggle New Orleans and its people continue to experience two years later.